What is disgust? If happiness tells us that things are good, and surprise that they are unexpected, etc. – what does disgust ‘tell us’?
An interesting thing about disgust is that the primary answer to the question ‘what is disgusting?’ must be ‘we are’. That is, it seems to be a basic fact about disgust that people, those very entities which can feel disgust, are also a source of disgust.
I say this not simply because many of the things that our bodies produce (saliva, sweat, urine, mucus, vomit, etc.) are in fact disgusting, but that it seems that the very fact of being from a person’s body makes things disgusting.
For instance, if I’m sitting on a bus and I notice a smell which, in itself, is neutral, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, I will probably (everything here, of course, is in generalisations) be fairly ok with this if I believe the smell to come from some inorganic source, like the glue that my book is bound with. But if I believe it to come from the person sitting next to me, I’m liable to be disgusted, and to feel specifically as though I have ‘made contact’ with them in too close a way, come to know them too intimately, through this.
Similarly, among the most disgusting things are when those parts of the human body which are not usually visible become visible – when organs spill out of abdomens, when the inside of the rectum is exposed through anal stretching, when we peer up someone’s nose or see a limb amputated. And, speaking at least for myself, if I though that I was seeing only a plastic model, a fake, I would find these things much less disturbing. Part of what repulses us is precisely that we see another person in a way that we don’t want to.
Of course, it must be pretty hard to be something that you find disgusting.
We have to tread carefully to manage the issue and avoid faux pas. For example, consider that every time we swallow, we swallow saliva – so in an hour or so that’s a decent amount of it. But imagine expelling that amount of saliva, dribbling it into a glass, and then having to drink it out of that – I think most people find this prospect disgusting. But we swallow that very glass of spit all the time, just in a slightly different manner.
If we look a bit further, at other things which we find disgusting, we note a couple of things. First off, disgust is especially concerned with the mouth – it is more disgusting to eat something than to touch it (and more to touch it than to look at it). Secondly, while people and animals can usually be tolerated if they keep themselves in order, and while purely inorganic things (rocks, wind, stars, etc.) are not disgusting, there is a lot of anxiety around things that don’t seem to be either one or the other – the various permutations of slime, mould, flesh, tentacles, and rot.
So having made a few observations, I’m going to suggest a (partial) analysis of disgust that tries to draw them together somewhat. It’s drawn from some remarks Sartre makes, but it’s ages since I read them so don’t assume I’m conveying much of his personal take on matters.
So the idea is this: disgust is the emotion that regulates the mind-body divide.
‘Mind’ and ‘body’ are functioning in quite broad ways here. ‘Mind’ could also be called person, will, spirit, intellect, form, etc. and ‘body’ is something like matter, mindlessness, inertness, solidity. Many people (me included) would say that much of how we think (indeed, perhaps at some level all) rests on a basic sense of difference, a basic splitting of the self from the world, which is necessary for us to form thoughts and decisions the way we do.
This split generates two opposed ideas: the one that’s on ‘my side’, of spirit or mind, characterised by organisation, awareness, transparency, freedom, knowledge, etc., and ‘the other side’, characterised in opposition to this. And we replicate this with other objects – some are mindless matter, some are conscious persons.
Sometimes, though, this split seems to be threatened. What if we, ourselves, are in fact made of meat? What if, moreover, we produce slime from various parts of this meat? What if mind and matter are just two sides of the same coin? What if we can’t maintain that separation, which is a precondition for all of our psychological organisation? Then we would feel a distinctive sort of distress – but note, we would find it very hard to express or explain it, it would seem ‘uncanny’, because its content was precisely to undermine all thought, and so couldn’t easily be put into thought. This, we might suggest, is the emotion of disgust.
This differs from fear, which is distress at the prospect of the mind ceasing to exist – disgust warns that it will continue to exist, but will not be mind, will rather ‘merge’ with matter, and lose its distinctive features. The earth will ‘drag it down’ and consume it. This is why ‘fear’ is easier to integrate into rational reflection – I fear that such-and-such happen because it will be bad and perhaps kill me (although of course not entirely; there are still ‘irrational fears’. Why? Interesting question)
Now one interesting conclusion we can draw from this is that, if a generally naturalist metaphysics is true – that is, one in which a single set of physical laws apply to all entities, where life evolves by chemical recombination and consciousness is simply a natural phenomenon like any other – then disgust is an essentially erroneous emotion. It serves to uphold a central illusion. It is a dualistic emotion.
This doesn’t mean we should try not to feel it – even if this was possible, it seems likely that this illusion is nevertheless a necessary one for our psychology. But it means we should in general, I think, be suspicious of disgust, and be reluctant to take it very seriously – e.g. we should avoid basing substantial judgements on ‘moral disgust’ or some such thing (I think there are already good reasons for this, but here’s another – or is it the same one, differently understood?).
(I should note finally that this doesn’t conflict with the claim that the evolutionary function of disgust is to avoid things that are sources of disease. The evolutionary function of sex is (primarily) to produce children, but people don’t primarily have sex to produce children. Evolution has to ‘make use of’ more general phenomenological categories, like pleasure, in order to direct organisms towards doing what happens to be in the interests of their genes.)